What you can learn from Hacktoberfest


Daniel Zaltsman

Hacktoberfest went from an idea to a global movement with a community in the hundreds of thousands.

In this session from DevRelCon San Francisco 2019, Daniel Zaltsman from DigitalOcean talks through some key lessons from a program that creates opportunities for people of all experience levels to contribute to open source.


My name is Daniel Zaltsman, and I serve the developer community at a company called Digital Ocean. And today, I’m going to talk about Hacktoberfest, as was just mentioned. 

And, going to split up this talk into two parts, focusing on how we created Hacktoberfest, so I’ll give a little bit of context for those of you who may have / not have heard of Hacktoberfest. And then really focus on providing tips and lessons that we’ve learned over five years of growing this program. 

Because I think it’s really impactful if we can all look it into our communities and foster more programs that surprise and delight them, build more inclusivity, encourage them more. And so that’s really the why behind this talk.

Open source interactions

And I’m just going to provide some key terms in case, these are words that I’m going to be using a lot throughout this presentation. So when I’m referring to open source, I’m going to be talking about code programs that is licensed in a way that you can use other folks’ code, you can repurpose it. So when I’m talking about open source, it’s free and open software. 

When I’m talking about GitHub, hopefully, all of you know what GitHub is, our sponsor here. But GitHub is a platform, probably the premier platform for sharing code online for developers. A repository is a sort of a project, or a collection of that code, and pull requests are those interactions that you want to make a change, you want to suggest something to a certain project or community, those interactions are called pull requests.

Encouraging and rewarding contributions

Alright, so how many of you have seen one of these T-shirts before? Yeah, okay. Amazing. I probably could have predicted that, because when we look at the statistics around Hacktoberfest, we see that in the top right, it’s the amount of folks that have signed up for Hacktoberfest over the past five years. Last year, over 100,000 folks. When we look at the folks that have completed the challenge, and I’ll get into exactly what it is, we see that it’s close to 50,000 folks.

And then, really, and the title of this talk is around pull requests, that’s garnered over 400,000 just last year alone in the community. And it’s a global reaching program that had 151 countries last year. Here are just some of the top countries. So before I dive into anything else, Hacktoberfest is a program that is a celebration of open source software in the month of October, that encourages more contributions to open source and rewards participants with a custom limited edition T-shirt.

Who doesn’t love a T-shirt? So question for you, who has heard of one of these organizations? Can I get a show of hands? Okay, yeah, I mean, many of you work at these organizations, about 100% of you raised your hands. These are all organizations that have participated in Hacktoberfest at one point or another, which is really amazing to see. And Hacktoberfest, from the very beginning, was something that we started with Digital Ocean to try to give back.

We knew that our community really love T-shirts, not a really big insight there, but they particularly loved ours. And so we thought, let’s just give something back and see if we can encourage more contributions through this interaction. And from the very beginning, that has been the mission. And it has stayed the same for the past five years. Here’s an example of a super fan that has all five T-shirts collected from the previous years, which is really great to see.

And I’m not going to get into the history of Hacktoberfest a whole lot in this talk, I want to get to the tips and share some of the insights that we’ve gotten. If you’re interested in the history, however, check out the Changelog podcast. This is a good overview of the history of Hacktoberfest. So here’s my BuzzFeed article version of this talk, six lessons that I’m going to share about Hacktoberfest so that you can build your own programs to engage and enrich your communities.

Start with your community

So let me jump right into it. So the first one is, commonly when we think about building out global programs, we think about, “Oh, we just need a great idea. If we just have a great idea, we can, you know, get this off the ground.” And I would say that what we’ve seen with Hacktoberfest is actually if we start with the community, and think about what the community is already doing, and really enjoying, there’s actually a lot of value there. 

And I’m really fortunate because Digital Ocean focuses on community as not just a marketing team, not just a dev rel team, but it’s a company-wide value for us to focus on our community. And the way we define our community is thinking about our employees, thinking about our customers, our partners, and developers in the ecosystem. So putting on that hat of focusing on your community first, I think is key to engaging a program like this from the very beginning. 

Documentation and community-first education

Another example of how the Digital Ocean really cares about community, it was mentioned yesterday in one of the talks, is our documentation and the amount of care that we put into educating the community. We have a whole team of writers who loves creating tutorials for our community to learn about all sorts of open source topics. We also have a program called Write for DOnations, where we encourage community contributors to come and write on that platform. And we not only pay for that, but we also allow you to donate to a charity of your choice. 

So those are just some of the examples of how community-first focus can be built into your DNA and help programs like Hacktoberfest, or whatever your program is going to be, grow in your community.

Hacktoberfest – an idea shared as a blog post

And this is the first Hacktoberfest. It was just a blog post. It went from an idea, it actually happened overnight. We had the idea the day before October 1st, and then we put up this blog as a, just “Let’s try this out.” And it got 85 comments which I’m circling. We responded to all the comments. And from then on, it was 500 people that have completed it. And from then on, you know, the rest is history. 

Where can you add value?

The next thing I would say to focus on is, where can you add value? So you’re starting to see some traction in whatever program you’re building, what more can you add as value? Don’t think about what you could take from it like, “Oh, it’s working now. So what else can we get out of this thing?” No, what else can we give back to this thing? 

And what we saw was Hacktoberfest is really online-focused. Obviously, you’re contributing code, you’re contributing documentation to open source. But developers also want to organize events. And early on, Samantha, my colleague, who’s actually in the room today. And her counterpart at GitHub at the time, Joe Nash, created the Hacktoberfest event kit.

And this was a free resource for community members to have a pretty much just an event, a meetup startup kit, just how to go from creating an event from scratch. And last year, actually, 251 exactly events were organized around the world. I took a screenshot of just the ones that took place in Nigeria, which is really awesome to see. This is just in the month of October. So an example of thinking about ways to give, to offer more value. 

The power of partners

The next tip is, Hacktoberfest would not be where it is today without our partners. And thinking, if we had this view that we just need to keep doing this by ourselves, we would not be where we are today with all of you raising your hands and knowing what Hacktoberfest is.

And really GitHub was a catalyst for this. I reached out the second year to John Britton, formerly at GitHub, to see if GitHub would be interested in partnering with us on this. And I already knew that they would be interested because there are so many companies out there, and even in this room, and watched online, you could find organizations that have similar values to you and have similar goals. So why not align yourself with them to help your programs grow? 

Another great example of this is, you’d think that this would be the first Hacktoberfest talk at a DevRelCon? No, it’s actually not. The first DevRelCon Hacktoberfest-related talk took place in London last year by Elmer Thomas, who was at SendGrid, now Twilio, because they have been such an amazing partner to Hacktoberfest. If you want to check out how to participate as a company in Hacktoberfest, this is a really great talk to check out. So really the power of partners. 

Practicing active listening with your community

The other thing is active listening. We know that we have to practice active listening when we talk one-on-one, we’re doing that all the time, but we have to do that with our community as well. And Hacktoberfest has not just been all, you know, “Yay, T-shirts and open source,” and, you know, warm feelings all the time. No. The reality is Hacktoberfest has this challenge of spammy pull requests. 

There are folks who are coming in and maybe not familiar with how to contribute to open source, or they may be just doing it for the T-shirt, and they end up bogging down maintainers, which is a big challenge. So we saw this early on, listening to our community. And one thing that we implemented were invalid tags, enabling maintainers to tag spammy pull requests as invalid, allows that person to be disqualified from getting a shirt. So giving some power back to the maintainers, but mainly, the lesson here is, listen to what your community is asking for. 

Another thing is not all the T-shirts arrive. I don’t know any other program that sends out 50,000 T-shirts around the world. And one thing that we saw in 2017 was our unfulfillment rate was over 2%, a little bit over 2%. Still pretty amazing. But we want it to be zero. And so we looked at the countries where we saw the highest rates and worked with our fulfillment company to implement new shipping methods. For example, implementing DHL in India allowed us to go to below 1% in 2018, which is something that we want to continue to improve on. 

Giving your community ownership

Next thing is letting the community make it their own. So you have a program, and I would suggest thinking about, “Okay, how can we let our community actually take it, and run with it, and make it their own, and customize it?” One thing that we do is we offer branded, you know, assets, something that all of you could do with your, you know, you do this with your logos, but what else can you be doing to encourage your community to take some of the things that you’ve built and build on top of that? 

And it’s amazing to see year over year, this is just in 2018, the blog titles of all the companies that participated in Hacktoberfest in the month of October, and you’ll see some names that are represented here, Typeform as a sponsor, and Twilio. And this is really an example of what happens when you kind of create this program that you encourage others to participate. 

And these are just some of the photos of the events that were organized around the world last year. And, you know, prime shining example of this is Microsoft participating last year and encouraging their community of contributors to participate in Microsoft repos and Microsoft Docs, which is totally great. That’s exactly what you should be doing. And incentivizing them with this awesome T-shirt that Ashley McNamara designed, which got their community really excited, and allowed Hacktoberfest to grow and reach even more people. 

Supporting a diversity of knowledge

So last but not least, is an in spirit of the theme of the conference, talking about the diversity of knowledge. I think that Hacktoberfest is an example of a program that encourages not only existing experienced developers, maintainers, folks that have been in this space for a long time, but also brings a lot of new folks into the space and introduces them and sometimes handholds them to learn what open source is all about, and how to be a giving member of this community.

And these are just some of the organizations that participated last year. I particularly focus on these because I think it’s really great when we see our open source ecosystem becoming more diverse with organizations focused on enabling more women to code, people of color. I want to do a special shout out to one of those organizations because I didn’t know they were participating. PyLadies, St. Petersburg. That’s actually my hometown, St. Petersburg, Russia in the top center there, which is pretty cool when I was looking them up. 

And I hope that this continues to grow. But the best example of this are the quotes that we see from these community members. Carly here talks about learning about Hacktoberfest through Girl Develop It. And that allowed her to become more comfortable with contributing and participating in GitHub. That’s amazing. 

Here’s another example of a community member going from contributing to actually becoming a maintainer of a well-respected project called Jekyll. And last but not least, I really love this example of someone who participated in the Hacktoberfest, and the following year, really, in the spirit of the program, took that experience and decided to give back and help others learn. Because, like Kelsey said yesterday, it’s, you know, thinking about the fact that we’ve all been in that beginner, we’ve all had that beginner mindset at some point and helping others get there. 

Hacktoberfest takeaways

So, in summary, obviously, start with focusing on your community and what they’re already really interested in. How can you deliver more value, to scale? Don’t go it alone. Think about partners, look for companies that you can align with and grow the program with. Practice active listening, whether that’s on Twitter, Discord, forums, IRC, whatever it is for you. Letting them make it their own, letting them customize the program, and enabling that in any way that you can. And last but not least, making it inclusive any way that you can. 

So we’re in June right now. But the reality is Hacktoberfest is coming. And so if you’re interested in participating, learning more about the program, you can visit hacktoberfest.com. You can talk to me. I would really love to work with all of you and really excited for what we can do together for Hacktoberfest 2019. Thank you so much.

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